As news of the arrests made in the Osage murder case gets out, the “horror of the crimes” holds the nation in its grip. The press seizes upon the story and sensationalizes it, spreading the “blood-curdling” details far and wide. Meanwhile, White remains consumed with the cases involving Roan and Mollie Burkhart’s family—and with trying to connect Hale to even more of the twenty-four Osage murders, plus the deaths of the attorney Vaughan and the oilman McBride. Hale is implicated in at least two more crimes—the death of George Bigheart and the apparent poisoning of another Osage Indian, Joe Bates, in 1921, whose land Hale staked a claim on shortly after Bates’s suspicious death.
As the press sensationalizes the stories of what’s happening in Osage County, White remains steadfastly focused on justice. The American public becomes obsessed with the lurid tales of Osage suffering—but White knows that is role is to deliver justice and stays committed to his duty to the Osage people.
Though the crimes Hale is being charged with are increasingly soulless and brutal, many white people throughout the country don’t even try to “mask their enthusiasm for the lurid story.” As the newspapers print more and more eye-grabbing headlines and newsreels about the crime show in cinemas throughout the nation, it seems that Americans cannot get enough of the “amazing story.”
The Osage people’s suffering captures the American imagination. This is a different kind of greed and a different kind of corruption—it is greed for drama and corruption of the human capacity for empathy—but the drives remain the same as those that fueled the crimes themselves.
Meanwhile, in Osage County, the Osage tribe is fearful that Hale and his conspirators will find a way to “wriggle free” and avoid judgement. The Society of Oklahoma Indians issues a resolution on January 15, 1926, begging federal and state officials to “vigorously prosecute” the alleged perpetrators. White, too, is aware of the corruption in America’s judicial systems, and is nervous that Hale and his flunkeys will get off easy.
Hale’s power doesn’t just frighten the Osage—it intimidates White as well, who is careful not to underestimate the powers of racism and corruption.
A federal prosecutor urges White to ensure that Hale is not tried at the state level, as his power and influence make it likely that he will be able to wheedle and bribe his way out of a fair trial—and yet because several of the murders took place on Indian territory, the question of which government entity has jurisdiction over them arises. When officials find that Henry Roan was killed on an Osage allotment under the control of the federal government, Hale and Ramsey are charged with Roan’s murder in federal court—and face the death penalty.
The importance of a federal investigation is paramount in this instance if Hale is to be properly, fairly tried—otherwise, his connections and corrupt network may shield him from facing justice.
A formidable prosecution team is assembled while Hale secures his own array of lawyers. Ernest Burkhart tells White that he heard Hale assuring John Ramsey that he—Hale—has “everything fixed from the road-overseer to the Governor.” As the trial date nears, Hale begins hiring assassins and private eyes to “take care of” potential witnesses for the prosecution—but the person White is most worried about is Burkhart, who confesses to White that he is afraid he will soon be “bumped off.” White ensures Burkhart he will have government protection and enlists two members of his team to take Burkhart out of Oklahoma and keep him safe until the trial.
Hale is flaunting his invincibility and enacting a campaign of continued violence and corruption as he tries to assure that things will be “fixed” in his favor.
On March 1, 1926, a judge finds that the case cannot be adjudicated in federal court and must be tried at the state level. Hale and Ramsey are going to be released. The two men begin celebrating in the courtroom, but are then approached by Sheriff Freas, who arrests both men under state charges for the bombing murders. White is relieved that the men will not go free but daunted by the idea of trying the case in state court.
For every step forward, there are two steps back in this case. It is a delicate and volatile set of circumstances which will determine whether Hale sees justice—and White wants to do all he can to ensure that the alchemy of the situation is right.
At a preliminary hearing on March 12, the courtroom is packed with Osage men and women (many of them relatives of the victims of Hale’s crimes,) journalists, cowboys, society men and women, and schoolchildren. One journalist present wrote that everyone had gathered to “catch the drama of blood and gold.”
Once again, the public gathers to witness the “drama” of the Osage people’s suffering and satisfy their corrupt desires for a grand spectacle.
On one of the benches, an Osage woman sits quiet and alone, away from all the madness—Mollie Burkhart. Ostracized by her white neighbors who are loyal to Hale and rejected by many Osage for her own continued loyalty to Ernest, Mollie sits silent and stoic throughout the proceedings, refusing to answer any of the press’s many questions.
Mollie has been ostracized by everyone around her, and yet knows she must bear witness to what is happening to Ernest—she must see justice for her family all the way through.
The hearings begin and continue rather uneventfully into the afternoon—when Ernest Burkhart takes the stand. One of Hale’s lawyers denounces Ernest as a “traitor to his own blood,” and it becomes plain that Ernest is losing whatever strength he has mustered. When one of Hale’s lawyers demands to speak privately with Burkhart, they leave the courtroom and enter private chambers for half an hour. When Burkhart emerges, his “new” lawyer announces that he has flipped for the defense. White tries to get Burkhart’s attention, but he is swept away “by a mob of Hale’s supporters.”
When Hale’s lawyer calls Ernest a “traitor to his own blood,” he means that Ernest is a traitor to the white race if he testifies against Hale. The despicable irony is that Ernest is in fact a traitor to his own blood—he has turned against his family, all for money.
The next morning, Burkhart announces that he refuses to testify for the state and recants his confession, denying his involvement in or knowledge of the crimes in totality. White is devastated, knowing that he has lost one of the most important pillars of evidence against Hale.
Hale’s influence is so powerful and profound that Burkhart flips sides and remains under his uncle’s control.
In May, when Burkhart’s trial begins, White faces an even greater crisis—Hale takes the stand and testifies that White and his agents “brutally coerce[d]” confessions from him and Burkhart, alleging that he, Burkhart, and John Ramsey were beaten and electrocuted during their interrogations.
Hale is trying to use his power and influence to invalidate White’s case against him.
In early June, Hoover catches sight of a headline referring to White’s alleged coercion tactics in a local newspaper. Hoover, fearing a scandal, writes to White and demands an explanation. White writes back denying the fabricated allegations and ensuring that things will soon get back on track.
Hoover doesn’t seem very worried about White himself—only about the potential for scandal.
As the trial continues, the prosecutors call as a witness Kelsie Morrison, one of their former informants. Morrison testifies that Hale plotted to eliminate the members of Mollie’s family so that “Ernest would get it all.” Morrison confesses to murdering Anna Brown—at Hale’s behest—and states that Bryan Burkhart acted as his accomplice.
At last, there seems to be some useful movement against Hale in the trial—something that might actually stand to topple his corrupt power.
On June 3, Mollie is called away from the trail—her youngest daughter with Ernest, Little Anna, has died at four years old. Doctors attribute her death to a serious illness, but for the Osage, “every apparent act of God [is] now in doubt.” After burying her daughter, Mollie returns straight to the courthouse and takes back up her spot in the gallery, sitting silently through the proceeding as she has for months.
Mollie has become so used to death, grief, and loss that she seems disconnected and numb at the death even of her own child, instead focused only on securing justice.
On June 7, Ernest Burkhart arranges for the judge in the case to come see him in the county jail. Ernest, nervously pacing his cell, claims that he wants to be done lying, but cannot tell his lawyers that he wants to return to being a witness for the prosecution. The judge arranges for another attorney to take Ernest on, and on June 9, Ernest announces in court his decision to enter a plea of guilty. He admits that he is “sick and tired” of the lies and wants to admit what he did. He admits to his role in the murders of Bill and Rita, and the courtroom erupts.
Ernest flips once again, agreeing to stand up to his uncle—even though he knows the potential consequences. Ernest is sick of lying, possibly worn down by Mollie’s continual appearances in court or by the trauma of losing a child.
White is relieved, and quickly sends a message to Hoover informing him of the news. Though he is, for the moment, off the hook, White knows he still has a huge amount of work ahead of him—he now has to successfully get Bryan Burkhart, John Ramsey, and, most improbably of all, William Hale, convicted. On June 21, 1926, Ernest Burkhart is sentenced to life imprisonment—as he is led away in irons, he smiles at Mollie, but her expression remains impassive.
The battle has been won, but the war is just beginning. White has only just started to unravel Hale’s network of violence, greed, cruelty, and corruption, and has much more to do before he can truly get at Hale.
A small bit of good news comes through, to White’s continued relief: the federal government has reassessed their previous ruling and agrees to try the case of Henry Roan’s murder as a federal one.
This reversal of fortune continues to buoy White as he gears up to fight against Hale.